By Abdul Bari Nijrabi and R. Maxwell Bone*
The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomepo made an unannounced visit to Kabul on June 25, 2019 During his nearly eight hours in the Afghan capital, the top diplomat of the United States met with senior government officials along with representatives of the Afghan opposition and civil society. This was Pompeo’s second visit to the South Asian country since he was sworn in as Donald Trump’s Secretary of State at the end of April 2018.
Notably, the atmosphere surrounding Pompeo’s visit was different than during his previous visit to the country slightly under a year ago. The atmospheric differences in Pompeo’s two visits to the Afghan capital are largely encapsulated in two wide ranging occurrences. First, the ongoing negotiations to reach a settlement between the United States and the Taliban and secondly, the rapid uptick in tensions between the United States and Afghanistan’s westernmost neighbor, Iran.
During Pompeo’s visit to Afghanistan in July of 2018, the Trump administration was still adhering to the South Asia strategy that it outlined in the summer of the previous year. This policy saw a marginal increase of American military personnel in Afghanistan in order to bolster the capability of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government to secure the country.
In comparison, while the United States has maintained its roughly 14,000 troops in the country it is now investing the majority of its military and diplomatic capital in the ongoing negotiations to reach a settlement with the Taliban. Specifically, Pompeo’s visit coincided with the announcement that the two sides would commence their seventh round of talks in Doha after the most recent round saw the two sides leave the Qatari capital after reaching a gridlock over the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Further, there is much apprehension regarding how the negotiations will conclude and how they will coincide with the upcoming Presidential Elections scheduled for the end of September. This is made more contentious given that the constitutional mandate of the sitting government of Afghanistan has been expired for several months due to the presidential elections being delayed for security and logistical reasons.
Similarly, while the Trump administration had left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) several months prior, tensions between the United States and Iran were relatively low. Conversely, tensions between the two countries today have risen to a point not yet been seen in the 21st century. Among other things this is made evident by the attacks on multiple vessels and the placement of naval mines in the strait of Hormuz which U.S. officials have attributed to Iranian actors.
Further, Pompeo’s visit to Afghanistan came directly after visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates where he was purportedly attempting to organize a new strategy to address the Islamic Republic after the downing on an unmanned U.S. drone that nearly led to a retaliatory strike. Additionally, Pomepo had recently placed blamed on Iran for an attack in late May on a U.S. military convoy in Kabul that injured personnel. If true, this would be the first time that U.S. military personnel had been directly attacked by an Iranian agent in Afghanistan.
Therefore, for the entirety of Pompeo’s day-long visit to Afghanistan, it is understandable that these two topics dominated the agenda. This perception was consolidated during a brief press availability that the Secretary of State had at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy prior to departing Afghanistan for India. The overwhelming majority of this press conference was dedicated to the ongoing peace negotiations which he mentioned over twenty times.
In comparison, the upcoming election was not even mentioned ten times. Further, he drew attention while responding to a question posed by an American journalist regarding the involvement of Iran in Afghanistan. In his response Pompeo said that it is “not in Iran’s best interest to undermine this peace process”, and referenced the potential that Iran has to carry out actions that would destabilize Afghanistan.
The predominant aspect that dominated Pompeo’s visit to Afghanistan was the ongoing peace process with the Taliban and specifically the seventh round of negotiations that was to start on June 29. This was made evident by the fact that for the entirety of Pompeo’s visit to the country he was not only flanked by the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, but by the Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Despite the overall emphasis on the peace process there was a specific aspect of it: during his press availability he claimed that the U.S. hoped to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban prior to the month of September 2019. However, he did not specify if this solution would be before or after an inter-Afghan reconciliation process that would see the Taliban formally integrated into the government of Afghanistan.
This raised the concern that the U.S. may potentially be placing more of a priority on reaching a settlement with the Taliban than on reaching a substantive, long lasting, and durable agreement. This concern was only built upon when Pompeo stated that the U.S. was close to reaching an agreement with the Taliban on a withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, an area that had previously been a sticking point between the two sides.
Pompeo also mentioned it is imperative to include minority groups such as women and youth in the peace process. However, the notion of reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban that is inclusive in only two months is met with skepticism by many. Thus far, the two sides have failed to reach an understanding on key issues and the notion this could now be done in only a few months seems unlikely to many.
The concern that the U.S. will rush to a peace agreement with the Taliban in order to declare an end to what is now the longest war in the history of the country is not illogical. This is due to the fact that a majority of Americans believe that it is time for the United States to remove the overwhelming majority of its troops from the South Asian country.
This sentiment is held on both ends of the political spectrum as is made evident in remarks made by political figures ranging from Donald Trump to Elizabeth Warren. However, while such an act may be politically expedient it would be disastrous for both Afghanistan and the United States alike.
For Afghanistan, a rush to withdraw foreign troops could lead to an accord not being properly implemented and see any attempt to integrate the Taliban into the Afghan National Army under a potential agreement ending in failure. For the United States, this could be a repeat of the troop withdraw that was seen in 2014. Specifically, this led to a rapid deterioration in the country and eventually forced the United States to redeploy troops. A repeat of such a practice would have dire consequences for both the United States and Afghanistan and allowing it to happen would be policy malpractice.
The second aspect that dominated Pompeo’s visit to Afghanistan was the worsening tensions between the United States and Iran. While it may appear that tensions between the two countries would not have much impact on Afghanistan it could not be further from the truth.
Specifically, modern day Iran has been a main actor in Afghanistan for centuries, dating back to the Safavid Dynasty in 1500. Currently, Iran and Afghanistan share a border that is nearly 600 miles long and is poorly policed. Additionally, the economies of Afghanistan and Iran are interconnected in an array of fields including ones that are illicit such as the production of Poppy.
This is to say that Iran is a stakeholder in Afghanistan and has been for centuries, especially in the west of the country. It goes without saying that this influence could be utilized to assist Afghanistan, however it appears increasingly likely that the Islamic Republic will utilize its influence in the country for nefarious means.
Specifically, Iran could utilize its leverage in Afghanistan to further destabilize Afghanistan in order to directly threaten the shared aims of both country’s democratically elected government and the United States. This is not only limited to accused support of the Taliban to carry out attacks on the U.S. assets in the country but also applies to direct actions of the Iranian government in Afghanistan.
For instance, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Core (IRGC) has been accused of carrying out attacks on water infrastructure in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. This has purportedly been done both directly, and by providing tactical and material support to the Taliban and various Shia militias in Afghanistan. Not only could this destabilize the country, but it also has the potential to greatly disrupt the country’s water supply, a majority of which originates from the Helmand River. Additionally, Iranian officials are widely believed to play roles in the trafficking of both narcotics and persons out of Afghanistan.
Pomepo’s notion that Iran may disrupt the ongoing peace process and attempt to further destabilize Afghanistan is not irrational. Iran’s potential and willingness to do so is clear if it achieves the country’s overarching aims of directly combating the interests and policy aims of the United States. Such acts would not be illogical as Iran has already threatened to do so in the past.
Specifically, Iran has threatened to expel Afghan asylum seekers. In the past year, Iranian officials ranging from its Foregin Minister to its Ambassador in Kabul have stated that the Taliban must have a role in the Afghan government. While such a position is widely accepted and believed to be necessary after a series of inter-Afghan dialogues, making such a statement at this point in time can easily be interpreted as Iran expressing a certain level of support for the Taliban. In doing so, Iran risks further destabilizing Afghanistan and jeopardizing an unprecedented opportunity to bring peace to a country that has for far too long only known war.
Further, it is imperative that the U.S. does not take actions that unintentionally give Iran leverage in Afghanistan. Rushing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan to satisfy domestic political audiences, the U.S. could unintentionally embolden Iran. Such an act is not without historical precedence as can be seen by examining Iran’s western neighbor, Iraq.
Actions taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations regarding the removal of troops saw Iranian backed Shia Militias become rapidly emboldened and strengthened. These militias continue to wreak havoc on U.S. interests in Iraq as was made evident in the recent launch of a rocket aimed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Constructing such militias, or further aligning itself with the Taliban in Afghanistan would be far from difficult for Iran, as a large number of Afghan Shias have travelled to Syria to fight alongside Iranian troops. Allowing this in Afghanistan would not only be detrimental for the direct interests of the U.S. but also for the Afghan people.
The surprise visit of the U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo to Afghanistan demonstrates the importance that the Trump administration places on the South Asian country. This is particularly the case with two pressing issues, the ongoing peace process with the Taliban and tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
It is imperative for both the U.S. and Afghanistan that these issues are addressed in a way that is inclusive and does not undermine this unprecedented opportunity for peace. Specifically, the U.S. must not rush to reach an accord with the Taliban simply to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Doing so would be catastrophic for both the U.S. and Afghanistan and would only embolden Iran and other U.S. rivals at the region.
* Abdul Bari Nijrabi is President and Founder of the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD). He is based between Washington, D.C. and Kabul, Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulNijrabi
* R. Maxwell Bone is Vice President for Political Affairs, Democracy, and Governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD). He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on twitter at @maxbone55.